One school of thought states that the motivation behind much of our normal behaviour – taking photographs, getting married – is essentially a stab at immortality: a way of creating witnesses to the tiny dent we made in the universe.
As we've discussed on MONTAG before, one day we may well become immortal (at least, in the eyes of everyone else) but until then, in the spirit of futurism, shouldn't we be finding better ways to dispose of ourselves?
Kathryn Lawrence found that our traditional "burn or bury" options seem a little dated when you could be heated to thousands of degrees, squashed to thousands of atmospheres, or blasted thousands of kilometres away...
There's a German phrase akin to the aphorism "You can't take it with you": "Das letzte Hemd hat keine Taschen." Literally, "the last shirt has no pockets."
Both expressions refer to the morbid reality that even though we spend so much of our lives accumulating material possessions and caring for our bodies, the great equalizer, death, does not allow us to keep these things – in Western cultures, that is.
Most people are familiar with Egyptian burial practices, in which effigies of the dead's material belongings (and even their pets), were included in the burial so they could accompany them to the next life. Offering grave goods such as "hell money," fake cash burnt as offerings to one's ancestors, is still a very common practice in Asia. And the tradition of leaving coins on the eyes or in the mouth of the deceased in order to pay for the ferry into the underworld goes back to ancient Greece.
But in the modern Western world, we have no such transference of material goods into the afterlife (if you even believe in one). What we do have are a bunch of new practices to figure out what to do with what you leave behind: how do you want to recycle your personal carbon?
Shoot For The Stars
One of the first science fiction writers to propose burial in space was Neil Ronald Jones. In "The Jameson Satellite," first published in 1931's Amazing Stories, a scientist named Professor Jameson seeks to preserve his body by sending it on a satellite, and is revived by interplanetary visitors millions of years afterwards.
Illustration from "The Jameson Satellite" via Project Gutenberg
Established in 1994, Celestis memorial spaceflights has made this science fiction dream a reality, but they won't send your entire body to be revived by aliens in the far future. What they can do is launch "a symbolic portion" of cremated remains into space with a commercial or scientific satellite.
Celestis offers several different space burial packages: the Earth Rise, for $1,295, flies you up far enough to experience zero gravity and then come back down (much like the Zero Gravity Flights parabolic flight experience, but with significantly less chance of vomiting).
The Earth Orbit package, for $4,995, shoots you into the atmosphere where you will later "harmlessly vaporize like a shooting star in final tribute" upon re-entry. The Luna Service and Voyager Service both cost $12,500 and Luna will land you on the moon, whereas Voyager will let you go further: both programs are the same price because they ride along with capsules that are being sent to the moon or deep space for scientific purposes anyway.
Friends and family are invited to view the memorial launch, and if they can't attend, a live, global webcast of the launch is also available.
Celestis DNA is also available to those who do not choose cremation. They send a cheek swab up instead, and this program seems to be not only for memorial purposes, as one of the advertised benefits is "off-planet DNA storage and preservation," – so the Jameson Project's goal is not so far off.
Perhaps if an alien race were to harvest some of your DNA out of a satellite remaining in the Earth's atmosphere, you could be revived via cloning. Arthur C. Clarke provided a strand of his hair as a DNA sample for a Celestis flight in 1999, and is quoted upon supplying the donation, "I'd give you more, but I don't have anything to spare."
Arthur C. Clarke via Wikispaces
Another company named Elysium Space launched in 2013, offers a similar space-burial service for $1,990. They also provide loved ones with an app that can track your memorial satellite as it traverses the Earth's atmosphere in real time.
In 2014, Celestis launched Celestis Pets, and they have stated that any inclusion of animal remains before this point was in violation of their policy, after it was rumored that the ashes of Bismarck, a police dog from Monroe, Washington were stowed away on a 2012 flight.
Several notable individuals have already been buried in space. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and James Doohan, the original Scotty from Star Trek, who passed in 2005, are both in Earth orbit along with American psychedelic philosopher Timothy Leary.
Dr. Eugene Shoemaker, an astronomer famed for co-discovering the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet, rests on the moon. And Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, was sent into deep space on the New Horizons craft, the first to pass by and photograph the now-demoted dwarf planet that he called "Planet X."
In 2012, a delegate from the state of Virginia proposed tax breaks for space burials, but the policy looks like it didn't make the books.
However, as space flight gets cheaper and more commonplace due to Elon Musk's relentless drive to return to his home planet – and the rest of us fleeing the consequences of global warming or other man-made Earth-bound catastrophes – many more people may choose their final resting place off-world.
Shine Bright Like A Diamond
Another increasingly popular transmutation of the human body is compression into a diamond after cremation. Several companies such as Cremation Solutions, LifeGem, Heart in Diamond, and Algordanza offer this service.
The human body is 18% carbon. 2% of this carbon remains after cremation, and it is this carbon that Algordanza uses to make their diamonds
Cremation Solutions' website explains the process:
- Step 1: Place several ounces of the ashes in a crucible that can withstand massive heat.
- Step 2: Bring the temperature to just over 5,000 degrees fahrenheit, and allow all of the elements except the carbon to oxidize.
- Step 3: Continue to heat until the carbon has turned to graphite. The entire heating process will take a few weeks.
- Step 4: Place the graphite in a core with a metal catalyst and a diamond seed crystal.
- Step 5: Place the core in a diamond press.
- Step 6: Bring the temperature to about 2,500 degrees fahrenheit and the pressure to about 800,000 pounds per square inch. Allow several weeks for the graphite to turn into a rough crystal.
- Step 7: Remove the crystal and use faceting tools to cut it to your specifications.
Both Cremation Solutions and Heart in Diamond emphasize that while these synthetic diamonds have all the natural properties of a girl's best friend, they are more kind to the earth and lack the exploitative labor practices of diamond mining to produce.
Depending on color, cut, clarity, and carat size, individual diamonds go from $750 to $24,999, and that's only for the diamond, not including the setting or jewelry.
While some synthetic diamond creation processes allow for the addition of chemicals to color the diamond, Algordanza's process uses the natural beauty of the boron content of the deceased's ashes to bring out the color, which can range from white to dark blue.
And is this process also available for pets? You bet.
"LifeGem for Pets? Of course."
At LifeGem, we understand that pets are cherished companions and unconditionally loving family members. Since introducing the LifeGem to the world, we have received thousands of requests to memorialize pets as LifeGems. The answer is YES, we absolutely can and will create a LifeGem memorial of your precious pet.
Something's Gonna Steal Your Carbon
Can't decide between cremation and giving your body back to the Earth the old fashioned way? A Swedish process called Promession offers an eco-friendly alternative.
Invented by biologist and avid gardener Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, the promession process involves freezing the body using liquid nitrogen to a temperature of -196º C, and then using powerful vibrations to break it into a fine powder. The powder is then freeze-dried again and processed to remove any metals that are remaining in the mixture from prosthetics, tooth fillings, or other bits that could harm the soil.
This powdered and reduced substance is then placed in a biodegradable container and buried shallowly so that the remaining minerals are in contact with the topsoil and are readily available for plant life. Between six to eighteen months later, the container and all of the materials it contains will have been recycled.
Wired reported on the process back in 2013, and uncovered conflicting information as to its effectiveness: while it was tested extensively on pigs, its use for humans has yet to be proven since human testing is still illegal, and a source from the Federation of Cemeteries and Crematoria of Sweden claimed that some deceased people who intended to use the process have had their bodies frozen for 10 years and are still waiting to be promessed.
"Capsula Mundi" via New York Post
In the mean time, people are still coming up with interesting, eco-friendly ways to use the human body to nourish the Earth. The "Capsula Mundi", created by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel looks like an egg, and envisions a future where cemeteries would consist of hundreds of trees being nourished by seed pods containing human remains.
Of course there's no cure for death that we know of (yet) but who knows what the future may hold?
Those people who are currently frozen and waiting to be involved in a more eco-friendly burial process, could be on the first step to cryogenics, which would make the Jameson Project a reality without spaceflight: reviving the terminally ill from a frozen state of stasis when a cure has been found for their disease.
Until then, becoming a shooting star, a shiny rock, or plant food are all pretty cool options as something to do with what you leave behind. You can't take it with you, but giving is always better than taking, anyway.